Difficult to define Canada’s foreign policy


Canadian governments have been unsuccessful in describing their foreign policy. Prime ministers Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin each published glossy booklets outlining Canada’s role in the world. All were full of incoherent generalities and all were quickly forgotten.

Efforts to define foreign policy flounder because no big idea or central purpose shapes Canada’s role in global affairs. American presidents dispense grand visions to meet international crisis or opportunity, but not in Canada, where flexibility and adaptability are the goal of policies made in response to an always changing world.

Canadian leaders speak sincerely of values such as human rights, but what really determines foreign policy is a combination of concrete interests, domestic realities and international partnerships.

Location, Location, Location

Canada is a vast transcontinental country with few people and a harsh northern climate. Unifying the diverse parts, building the nation and defending sovereignty are immense challenges. Sixty per cent of the Canadian population lives on about two per cent of the land mass within 150 kilometers of the United States border. During the Cold War, Canada was sandwiched between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The United States

Sharing the North American neighbourhood with the United States, Canada’s best friend and also its natural adversary, is the central fact of Canadian existence. Canadians want to have the best of both worlds: to oppose the United States when convenient or necessary, but also to embrace the material benefits that flow from the relationship. Anti-Americanism is a tempting tactic for Canadian politicians.

“It’s me against the Americans,” Prime Minister John Diefenbaker exclaimed during the 1963 election campaign. Some Canadians applauded, but Diefenbaker lost the election.

Making A Living

With their small internal market, Canadians live by foreign trade. Exports account for almost 40 per cent of the national economic output; one in three jobs depends on global trade. Since the 1940s, Canada has become increasingly dependent on a single trading partner, the United States. Along with Mexico, Canada and the U.S. have a free trade arrangement, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Allies and Alliances

In the First and Second World Wars, Canada was a vital part of the British alliance. During the Cold War and after, Canadians contributed to international security through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and to continental defence in the North American Air (now Aerospace) Defence Command (NORAD). Canada participated as a coalition partner in the Korean War (1950-1953), the Gulf War (1991), the Kosovo campaign (1999) and the war in Afghanistan (2001- ). The Canadian Forces are largely inter-operable with those of the United States, Canada’s main ally.

An Immigrant Country

Canada is a country built by immigrants. More than 20 per cent of Canada’s population is foreign born, compared with 10 per cent in the United States. “Look into the face of Canada,” said Prime Minister Martin, “and you will see the world.”  When Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited China and India in 2009, he had in his mind the hundreds of thousands of Chinese Canadians and Indo-Canadians back home.

Politics and Provinces

Canada was born in 1867 as a tough minded political arrangement between diverse and soon-to-become-strong provinces. The provinces frequently squabble with the federal government over foreign policy, and national unity is a perennial concern. Quebec’s large francophone population has been particularly influential in the making of Canada’s international policy, as in the 2003 decision not to join in George W. Bush’s Iraq War.

Military Matters

The national government is in firm control of the army, navy and air force. Seldom do military leaders attain stature in Canadian life (General Rick Hillier, the Chief of the Defence Staff from 2005-2008, was a notable exception), or challenge the civilian government through resignation or public protest. Peacetime governments, aware that the public is usually unconcerned about defence questions, tend to take the military for granted. Canadians at the turn of the 21st century began to take a more positive attitude towards military matters, and Paul Martin and Stephen Harper were the first prime ministers since the 1960s to make defence a high priority.

International Institutions

Canada is an active member of the United Nations, the G-8 and G-20 groupings of states, the Commonwealth, la francophonie, and the Organization of American States, as well as a partner with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The international engagement of Canadians is deeply felt, in part because it seems to offset the powerful influences coming from the United States. The U.S., however, remains the pivot around which Canada’s world spins.

The raw facts that lie behind the positions that Canada takes in the world limit rather than liberate decision-makers, having much more to do with intense pressures coming from close to home than events far away. The result is a foreign policy that is pragmatic, moderate and balanced – like Canadians themselves.

Norman Hillmer is Professor of History and International Affairs at Carleton University. Kim Richard Nossal, The Politics of Canadian Foreign Policy (Scarborough, Ont.: Prentice Hall, 1997) and Norman Hillmer and J. L. Granatstein, Empire to Umpire: Canada and the World into the Twenty-First Century (Toronto: Thomson Nelson, 2007) explore the making of Canadian foreign policy.

Next Installment: Canada’s Great War

The Canadian Experience is a 52-week history series designed to tell the story of our country to all Canadians. Sponsored by Multimedia Nova Corporation and Diversity Media Services partners, the series features articles by our country’s foremost historians on a wide range of topics. Past articles and author bios are available at http://www.cdnexperience.ca. The Canadian Experience is copyright © 2010-2011 Multimedia Nova Corporation.

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